Cornelius was left an orphan at the age of 15 and was in very straitened circumstances. He began working on paintings of local churches.
One of the milestones was for Cornelius's trip to Rome in 1811 where he joined the Association of German painters which included Overbeck, Pforr etc. In the 1820's. Cornelius lived mostly in Munich at the invitation of Ludwig of Bavaria, writes the court portraits, and after 1825, heads the local Academy of arts. In 1840 Cornelius moved to Berlin.
German painter, draughtsman. From 1795 to 1800 he studied at the düsseldorf art Academy, where his father taught. From 1809 to 1811 he lived in Frankfurt-on-main. In 1811 he settled in Italy, where in 1812 became friendly with a circle of artists of the time Nazarene works that formed led by Overbeck and F. Prorram Bratstvo SV. Luke (Lucasbund). Traveled to Italy in 1811-1818. Visited Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Modena, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Orvieto, studying the paintings of the Renaissance masters. Was engaged in monumental painting, taking part in the paintings of the time Nazarene works in Rome and in 1816-1817 1818-1828. From 1819 to 1826 was the acting Director of the düsseldorf Academy. In 1829 took part in the decoration of the Munich Glyptothek, made by Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria, which was in constant correspondence. In 1830-1831, 1833-1835 1845 and again visited Rome. He painted religious subjects and portraits, created murals, executed drawings for subjects of literary works, made sketches of the landscape in Italy.
In the early works of Cornelius (Odysseus from the Polyphemus, 1803; Athena teaches weaving, 1809, both — düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum) is still a strong tradition of academic training. Clear design complements the dry austerity of form, a lack of interest in the development of tonal colors indicate the assimilation of manners neoklassitsisticheskoy painting. In made in Italy canvas of the virgin of the reasonable and unreasonable (1814, Dusseldorf Museum of Art) Raphael perfect symmetry of composite construction is not consistent with the expressive character of the gospel of images. In this work, has already affected the search for a new visual language, which had been based on the aesthetic and artistic ideals of the time Nazarene works. In 1816-1817 Cornelius took part in the decoration of scenes from the life of Saint. Joseph Zuccari in the Palazzo (or Casa Bartholdy), belonging to the Prussian Consul in Rome S. Bartholdy. They were selected scene of the most dramatic content (Joseph, recognized brothers; Joseph, interpreting the dreams to Pharaoh). Unlike soft Raphael grace, which imitated Overbeck, Cornelius attracted to the images of Mantegna, Signorelli, Michelangelo. This is indicated by his numerous drawings, executed with the works of these artists while traveling through Italy.
In the paintings of one of the halls of the casino in the Park of the Villa of Prince Carlo Massimo in Rome (1818-1828), the artist depicts scenes from Dante. Near Legionari more idyllically-narrative frescoes by Overbeck on subjects from tasso, and Y. Snorre von Carolsfeld of Ariosto images of Cornelius look full of inner expression. Participation in collective monumental paintings in Rome was for Cornelius software: like other time Nazarene works, he wanted to revive the classical tradition of fresco painting in contemporary art. Recent work of the artist in the monumental painting of the frescoes in the Munich Glyptothek, on subjects from classical mythology (the Wrath of Achilles, the Return of Hector, Priam and Achilles, 1829), likened costumed scenes, stylized in the spirit of the Italian masters of the Quattrocento.
Less visible in monumental painting and especially pronounced in the portrait, the desire of time Nazarene works to connect the following of ideal and nature has led to the creation of stylized images. Like Overbeck, Cornelius loved to liken a group portrait scene "SV. Family" (SV. Family, 1809-1811, Frankfurt am main, Städel art Institute), pair portrait to give the similarity with the image of two of the apostles (Double portrait, 1812, Munich, private collection), to portray portrayed in the old national costumes (Mal's, 1809-1811, Dresden Picture gallery). The imitation is meticulous, full of genuine spontaneity of vypisnoy details in works of artists of the Northern Renaissance took on the character of the naturalistic manners. The elements of Renaissance and Gothic architecture give the images of the beauty and theatricality. The influence of the art of Michelangelo and dürer noted recent works of Cornelius the last judgment (1836-1839, Munich, Ludwigskirche), horsemen of the Apocalypse (1845, Berlin, State. museums), the Burial of Christ (1845, Copenhagen, thorvaldsens Museum). In the works of Cornelius as one of the leading masters of early German romanticism manifested a desire to assert national artistic traditions in European culture. In the environment, who worked in Rome German craftsmen were highly valued his landscape drawings from nature, romantic manner of execution which has developed under the influence of the Painting. Widely known illustrations to Goethe's Faust (1808), the cycle of the Nibelungs (1812). The works of Cornelius was influenced by the painting of the Dusseldorf time Nazarene works (E. Bindeman, etc.), and also on European art of the XIX century.